Why you should care about Chicago's Climate Action Plan
    Photo by fireflythegreat on Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons.

    As you may have heard, it’s just not cool anymore to drive a Hummer, keep the lights on all day or to light giant piles of coal on fire (a hobby of many Northwestern students, I know.) But now the city of Chicago is making this change official. Last week, Mayor Daley announced to an audience slightly more captive than last year’s graduating class the Chicago Climate Action Plan, a city-wide effort to reduce carbon emissions and improve the environment.

    The plan includes a program called the $800 Savings Challenge (because every government project should sound like a car insurance ad).

    The grand plan, the largest of its kind in the nation, has the stated goal of cutting greenhouse gas emissions to three-quarters of their 1990 levels by 2020 and to one-fifth of the 1990 levels by 2050. But it also includes plenty of other goals, like creating more green spaces in the city, inducing businesses to reduce their carbon footprint and teaching citizens steps they can take. While other cities have passed similar proposals, Chicago’s is the largest and the only one with specific measures.

    The plan, which has been in the works for almost a year, is flexible, allowing for new laws and regulations should the current plan need modification. But it still enumerates a framework for a massive, city-wide effort that could make Chicago the greenest city in the world. The headline grabbers are the restrictions on businesses and the agreements with two coal-burning power plants to either shut down or drastically reduce their emissions. But the real meat of the program is in the part that gets everyone involved, including small clauses that could change students’ lives.

    The plan includes a program called the $800 Savings Challenge, a checklist of simple ways Chicago residents can chip in and reduce their emissions. Saving constituents money is the most effective incentive known to government and so participation can save citizens up to $800 (because every government project should sound like an advertisement for car insurance). The program has several monetary incentives–builders who construct green buildings may get tax breaks, for example–but city officials have said they haven’t ruled out mandating compliance in some form. One floated proposal is to charge drivers a fee for using congested roads, based on a successful plan implemented in London. But the monetary incentives are much less important to the plan than a feel-good, positive reinforcement theory of getting people to change their bad environmental habits.

    Other measures in the plan include:

    • “The Green Office Challenge,” where businesses will be instructed on how they can reduce emissions and office buildings will be given incentives for cutting back–on electricity, paper consumption and encouraging employees to live greener lives outside of work. Even if nobody participates, this should still provide inspiration for an episode of “The Office,” because how awesome would it be to see Kelly talk about how much she loves trees?
    • A more efficient building code, which is coming up for review next month. Students renting apartments in Chicago might have to contend with new regulations on heat and electricity and new buildings may use more eco-friendly materials.
    • Research into how to improve public transportation to reduce the amount of drivers on the road. This will likely lead to new El and bus lines, while cutting down on traffic in the city.
    • More implementation of the Bike 2015 program, which would make Chicago a more biker-friendly city. It’s going to make it easier and safer to bike through the city and will probably mean more pretty bike paths.
    • Construction of alternative fuel stations and the creation of a “one-stop shop” for energy resources. The second part is basically a green 7-11 (or White Hen, if you’re old enough to remember those days) where residents can come learn about ways to cut back on their emissions and can pick up the materials they need.

    Daley has said that Chicago can’t reverse the world’s climate crisis all by itself, but that doesn’t doom the plan to being an empty gesture. According to research from Texas Tech University and the University of Illinois, Chicago’s summer temperatures have risen 2.6 degrees since 1980 and the temperatures in the winter have gone up 4 degrees (yes, up 4 degrees). By the end of the century, heat indexes could go up to a sweltering 105 degrees if no action is taken.

    Besides cooling the city off, the Climate Action Plan could also inspire other cities to take similar measures. Chicago has gotten a lot of praise for its green policies over the last 15 years, creating parks even before Al Gore made it cool to be green. With little national action on reducing emissions, the burden has fallen on cities and states (California got a head start two years ago). Chicago’s good track-record on creating public parks and being environmentally friendly means there’s a good chance this program will work. Plus, the program is flexible with some goals being left vague, so there’s plenty of room for the program to grow and adapt. The plan should also serve as a blueprint for other cities–over the next five years, don’t be surprised if your hometown enacts similar policies.

    And don’t worry if it’s a burden — it could save you a ton of money.


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